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The beauty spot

By Valérie CLO Sofitel Rabat Jardin des Roses

You have to start by experiencing what you want to express.
Vincent Van Gogh

When I told my mother that my editorial office was sending me to Rabat for five days for a conference on the environment, a gleam of joy spread across her face. We smiled at each other.
Was it chance? Destiny?
A year ago, after my grandfather’s death, my mother asked me to help her clear out his flat. He had lived there alone since my grandmother’s death ten years previously. My grandfather was a taciturn man who said little about himself and his childhood. I knew he was born in Morocco and that he had arrived in France during the Second World War, at the age of 20. He met and married my grandmother, and became wedded to his adopted country at the same time, and never left either France or his wife’s side again. We never knew exactly why he didn’t want to go back to his home country, but we imagined it had something to do with his difficult relationship with his father. My grandfather always evaded questions about his childhood, and time never healed his eticence. He had closed the door on his past for good. Now, my mother and I had only one thing on our minds: to reopen it. There was one question in particular that plagued us – did he still have
family in Morocco?
In my grandfather’s living room, several carefully framed photographs sat proudly on the chest of drawers. Black-and-white photos of my grandparents’ wedding, my parents’ wedding, my mother as a child, a teenager, a young woman, me as a baby … I was drawn to one photograph: a small portrait of my grandfather in uniform. He must have been about 20. He was good looking, with fine features and a gentle gaze. Under his right eye was a beauty spot, exactly the same as mine. The family trademark, he used to tell me jokingly.

 

In one of the chest’s drawers, among the tablecloths and silver cutlery, I found a little black leather box bound with several elastic bands. Thinking it was a trinket of no importance, I set it on the table and carried on sorting through the various administrative papers in front of me. Then at one point, possessed by an uncontrollable urge, I caught up the box, removed the elastic bands and opened it. Photographs, postcards from Morocco, a birth certificate, an old watch, letters, short notes and booklets in Arabic spilled onto the table.

 

I arrived in Rabat on a Monday. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. The weather was beautiful. The air was a little more humid than in France, and it relaxed me. I was overcome by a feeling of wellbeing, and tears came to my eyes. I breathed deeply.

The man in charge of arranging my transfer to the hotel was in high spirits and seemed proud to be showing me his city. We crossed huge avenues lined with impeccably pruned trees. We passed by the majestic buildings of various embassies, consulates, ministries and, of course, the royal palace. A reminder that we were in the administrative capital of Morocco, it gave the city an impressive, imperial air. I hoped I would have time to visit all the sights my guide recommended, some of which looked very old.

 

In my grandfather’s flat, my mother and I were stunned by the discovery I had made. We sat down at the living room table and went over every document and item that had lain dormant in the little black leather box. My mother seemed to be discovering a treasure; a side of my grandfather’s life she had known nothing about. Why had he never told her of it? Why all the mystery? She picked up a black-and-white photo of a young couple posing in traditional dress, looking serious, concentrating hard. The woman was shapely, her hair worn in a scarf that made her eyes stand out. Under her right eye was a beauty mark. The boy of around 10, standing between his parents, had one in exactly the same place. The woman was carrying a baby wrapped in pale cloths in her arms, its face barely visible. The father had fine features, a certain elegance, and a very bright, almost hard gaze.
His son looked like him. He had the same fine face, but his eyes were different: they were soft as velvet. My mother couldn’t take her eyes off the photograph. For the first time, she was seeing the faces of her grandparents, the face of her father as a boy, and discovering the existence of her father’s little brother or sister.

 

The little black box also contained letters written in Arabic, my grandfather’s French naturalization papers, his birth certificate, which told us his parents’ first names, and a photocopy of the family record book, which told us the name of his younger sister.
My mother was shaking. Her suspicions had been confirmed: what she had always imagined and secretly hoped was spread out right there on the table in front of her. Her father surely still had family there – cousins, and her aunt, if she was still alive. She was overcome with a sudden joy mixed with anguish, an onlychild uncovering a piece of her past and the hope of finding part of her family. My grandfather’s birth certificate said he was born on 5 January 1920, in Rabat.

 

We passed the Bou Regreg river, which separates the cities of Rabat and Salé. In the distance was the sea. Giant palm trees cut into the sharp blue sky. There wasn’t a breath of wind. I opened the window wide and breathed deeply. I was in my grandfather’s land. This business trip had taken on a sacred quality.

 

The hotel was sumptuous. A real gem, set amongst a garden of luxuriant plants, where rose bushes and orange trees gave the air a subtle scent. The décor was contemporary and refined throughout. The conference was to take place in the hotel.
Various speakers and guests were starting to arrive from all over: France, the US, Italy, Algeria and, of course, Morocco.
Rabat had been declared a green city and saw itself as a model on environmental matters. I settled into my room, which was luxurious, blending oriental charm with modernity.

 

While I unpacked my case, I tasted the little almond cakes laid out on the table by way of welcome. Sweet and creamy, they tasted divine. I took out my laptop, files and everything I would need to take notes during the conference. At the bottom of my case was the black-and-white photograph of my great-grandparents.

 

My mother and I had completely cleared, emptied and cleaned my father’s flat before handing the keys back to the landlord. My mother took some of her parents’ furniture, trinkets and keepsakes, and stored them in her garage. She kept the black leather box on her bedside table. Every day she would open it and take out the documents, determined to start the process of tracing her aunt as quickly as possible. I took care of the Internet research while she took care of the administrative process at the consulate.

 

eople often ask me about my roots. Am I Algerian? Tunisian? Egyptian? Iranian? Lebanese, perhaps? I always said that my grandfather came from Morocco, but I’d never been there.

Finding myself here in Rabat was like a twist of fate, a blessing that life had dealt me: an invitation to discover part of my family’s roots and culture, and immerse myself in them. The sun rose over Rabat, flooding the city and the river with an ochre light that causes a tightening in my chest and gives the place an impression of serenity. Majestic Rabat was rising from her sleep, dressed in gold.

 

The air was sweet. I drank my coffee on the hotel patio, looking onto the beautiful garden and the pool, where a few brave souls were swimming despite the early hour. I went to fetch my things and set myself up in the conference room, which was filling slowly. Renewable energy, the preservation of natural resources, waste management, sustainable agriculture and eco-tourism were a few of the topics on the agenda. I’m passionate about environmentalism and my job as an editor, but I confess that I struggled to concentrate on the first speaker. I switched off. My body was there, glued to the chair; my hands were ready to take notes amid the audience of scientists and experts; but my soul was elsewhere: already in the city, exploring Rabat.

 

I roamed the city, losing myself in the maze of the market on rue des Consuls, breathing in the air, the spices, the tanned leather; feasting my eyes on a multitude of bright colours in the carpets, cloth, jewellery and fruit; immersing myself in the swarming atmosphere of the souk, soaking it up; tasting the sweet and savoury flavours, the honey and almond cakes; observing the people, talking to them, seeking a resemblance to my father in their features; looking for something to say to my mother when I came home – a scent, a clue, a bit of hope. I wanted to go back to Paris with hope.

 

My mother was told that the research could take some time, because her aunt would certainly have married and changed her surname. It would require a search through several years of marriage certificates, and not just from Rabat. She could have married anywhere in Morocco, or moved to another country – France, like her brother, or somewhere else. My Internet research hadn’t been fruitful. I had posted messages on several family history websites and not received any response, apart from a few messages of encouragement from people who had come across them.

 

Someone at the hotel talked to me about the Kasbah of the Udayas, one of Rabat’s top sights. I’d seen some photos of this 12th-century fortress on the Internet and was eager to visit. After the last speaker of the day had finished, I escaped and jumped into a taxi. The  unassailable citadel, surrounded by ramparts, was a beauty spot on the hillside, looking out onto the river Bou Regreg and the distant sea. The entire scene reminded me of Andalusia: the heavy doors of finely sculpted wood, the Moorish garden, the little white houses covered with blue lime in places. I lost myself in the narrow streets, discovering little architectural gems. Partly open doors here and there revealed hints of typical, intricate décor. In the heart of the citadel, I made a stop at Café aure and ordered a delicious mint tea and a gazelle horn. The
view of the river was beautiful and soothing; from here, the city seemed sleepy. I carried on exploring and went into a kind of art gallery to buy postcards. There were two women behind the desk.
The younger was engrossed in a phone conversation and barely raised her head. Her animation was in contrast to the calm of the elderly woman who sat next to her, who never took her eyes off me. Her skin was heavily wrinkled, her hands were calloused, and her black eyes reminded me of my grandfather’s. She could be his sister. When I held out the cards I’d chosen to her, she took my hand and said something in Arabic I didn’t understand. I wanted to ask questions but didn’t dare, so I settled for smiling at her. When I left the gallery, she made a long hand gesture at me through the window.

 

Back at the hotel, I lay down on the big bed in my room and closed my eyes, both exhausted and excited after my excursion.
My senses were awakened. I felt something like an urgency to soak up this city and bring as many memories and photos back for my mother as I could, so that she could taste the air, picture the colours and smell the scents of her father’s land. I had to see as much as possible before leaving, even if it meant escaping a little early from the conference over the following days.

 

I remember my grandfather: his gentleness, and taciturn nature that almost gave way to shyness. He spoke French with a slight accent, a reminder that he came from somewhere different: a warm, faraway, exotic country that people dream about. He was better than anyone at choosing fruit and vegetables at the market, and I was sure this came from his roots. Where he came from, ingredients had to have more taste and flavour, and he was never fooled. He taught my grandmother to make Moroccan couscous and other traditional dishes with sesame seeds and fennel. Although she was from Normandy and used to cooking with butter, she became an expert. He used to compliment her on her cooking talents and enjoyed the multi-spiced dishes with open relish. Even though we talked so little about Morocco, it was always present at the table. And every time we ate Moroccan food, we were filled with joy and curiosity at the feeling of discovering hidden treasure.

 

A five-minute car ride from the hotel was the necropolis of Chellah, built on the still-visible remains of a Roman city. Once I had passed hrough the heavy octagonal door, an ancient world opened up to me, where remains of the Roman Empire lay alongside those of the Marinid dynasty. I went down a paved path bordered by abundant, aromatic plants, and came across the minaret of an ancient mosque and Koranic school. In front of it were the near-intact tombs of Sultan Abu Al-Hasan and his wife, Morning Sun, a Christian who converted to Islam and who still inspires interest and fascination today. A little further down was a basin full of coins, where an enigmatic fish with golden scales and
eels said to restore women’s fertility are said to live hidden away.
A strange clacking of beaks made me raise my head, and I was amazed to see storks perched on the ancient ruins. Every piece of this land, every molecule of the air, was loaded with history and legend. It gave the place a unique atmosphere loaded with mystery and intensity.

 

I felt that everywhere I went in Rabat, my grandfather was with me, guiding my steps. I would so have loved to make this journey with him, so that he could show me the place where he was born, the area he lived in and the school he went to. I imagined that the modern city I was exploring must be very different to the one he had known. I tried to imagine the pain that had prevented him from returning to his home country. What had happened between him and his father to make him refuse to come back, to close the door on his country, his culture, his
language, and even lose his family, his sister? What had made him flee, robbing relatives of part of their heritage, and leaving them thirsty for the culture that was torn from them?

 

The sacred ritual of the hammam was part of this culture I was experiencing for the first time. I let the humid heat soak into me, relaxing me instantly. Enveloped in the muffled atmosphere, I lay down on the hot, brightly coloured tiles. I abandoned myself in the masseuse’s hands. She gave me a vigorous scrub that left my skin soft and scented, and a rhassoul clay shampoo that gave me silky, shiny hair. That evening, I couldn’t make sense of the notes I’d taken during the day. I fell asleep like a baby, lulled by the muezzin’s call and the sweetness of life that cloaked the city.

 

It was the last day of the conference. On the agenda: how do we manage waste in emerging economies? How is an “intelligent” city defined in the Mediterranean? What conditions are needed to optimize sustainable development initiatives in Morocco? There were further topics that showed potential. Rabat had signed a charter on the environment and sustainable development. It was becoming a real open-air laboratory, and this gave the city added appeal in my professional eyes.

 

I left the conference earlier than usual that evening. Before returning to Paris, I absolutely wanted to see the Hassan tower and the tomb of King Mohammed V up close. I never knew that Morocco’s most famous king was buried in Rabat and that anyone could make the pilgrimage to his tomb. Horse guards were posted at the entrance to the esplanade. To the left was the unfinished Hassan tower, 44 metres high, overhanging the city and the sea.
In front of it, you can still see the remains of the marble colonnades that were supposed to support what would have been the biggest mosque in Morocco. Directly opposite is the royal mausoleum, where the king and his two sons were laid to rest. I mixed with the crowd, eyeing the monarchs’ tombs with a certain fascination. I was astounded by the beauty and prestige of this place of rest, the intricacy and quality of the details and materials: gold leaves, white marble, mahogany and cedar.

 

I struggled to get to sleep that night. I had experienced a journey beyond time. In the space of a few days, I felt as if I had lost my habits and reference points; and, at the same time, that I had found part of my family’s.

 

I left Rabat on the Friday. As the plane took off from Rabat Salé airport, my chest tightened. Elegant Rabat, with its huge areas greenery, slowly disappeared from view. I regretted not staying for longer to explore the rest of the city, the beaches, the other gardens, museums, libraries, and other, secret places. I would take the city away with me to tell my mother about, and I promised myself I could come back with her very soon for a holiday.

 

When the plane landed in Paris, the temperature dropped 20 degrees in an instant. My mother had come to meet me at the airport. Her eyes were shining. As she embraced me, she told me she had some good news. She was very excited and couldn’t stop talking. In the chaos, with a certain amount of confusion, she told me she might have found her aunt and her family. She could have three cousins. They lived in Casablanca, 22 kilometres from Rabat. She had received their letter yesterday and had been eagerly awaiting my return so that she could surprise me. She added that we now had to organize a trip to see them – and since Rabat was so close, we could visit while we were there, given that I was an expert on the city now. Once we were in the car, she held out a short letter with an address on, and a photograph of
two women sitting on a sofa. The younger woman was very dark and quite pretty. She looked around my mother’s age. The older woman wore a coloured scarf around her head and was the spitting image of my grandfather. She seemed ageless. She was looking very intensely
at the camera. Her face was heavily wrinkled, her gaze gentle.
And under her right eye was a beauty spot.

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